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Covering manufacturing: Resources

American manufacturing is alive and if not well, at least an important part of the economy. Although political leaders from President Obama to Mitt Romney have made the revival of manufacturing into a campaign issue, the nation’s manufacturing base is still intact.

While plant closings have been in the headlines for decades, manufacturing has not disappeared. Far from it. Every state has manufacturing sectors, and about one in 10 Americans still work in factories and in producing products.

U.S. Census survey of manufacturingManufacturing is a data-rich field, and there is a wide variety of places to go for information on everything from cars to airplanes to textiles and petroleum-based goods, as well as the people involved in manufacturing.

The big picture

One good place to start is the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Manufactures (ASM). It provides estimates of  statistics for all manufacturing establishments with one or more paid employees. One of the most useful parts of the ASM is the breakdown of manufacturing by geographic area. The data is current through 2009, and will be updated as the 2010 Census figures are analyzed.

The Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics is the principal source for all manner of statistics about employment and labor unions. Although the focus most recently has been on unemployment levels, the bureau also is a good source for finding information about payrolls and union membership. Labor unions are required to file an annual report with the government stating their membership and financial resources.

You can sign up for emails from BLS that will send you the latest statistics on a variety of subjects.

The 12 regional banks of the Federal Reserve Board publish monthly statistics on manufacturing. For example, the Chicago Fed publishes the Midwest Manufacturing Index, which tracks 15 different measurements of manufacturing in seven Midwestern states. You can sign up for emails from the banks, as well.

The National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group, publishes monthly state-by-state data measuring manufacturing jobs and output. While NAM is understandably pro-manufacturing, it’s worth checking out the data on its site.

Zeroing in on an industry

Every major manufacturing sector has a lobbying group in Washington that publishes its share of statistics. You can find much of the information you need online, and the associations often have chief economists who can walk you through industry-related issues and do statistical research for you. The associations often hold conference calls when their industries are in the news.

Some major ones include:

Air Transport Association — representing the nation’s airlines

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers – represents Detroit automakers and many foreign producers in the U.S.

American Iron and Steel Institute – the steel industry’s trade group

American Textile Manufacturers Institute — textile manufacturers and retailers

International Association of Oil and Gas Producers – a London-based group representing energy producers

Along with the official spokespersons for an industry, independent analysts can be extremely helpful in providing data and information. Companies whose shares are traded on Wall Street are often followed by investment analysts. They publish regular reports, often sent by email, which provide investors with updates about the companies that the analysts follow. Once you find an analyst whose work you respect, you can ask him or her to add you to his or her mailing list.

Credit-ratings agencies such as Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investor Services have analysts who follow manufacturing. These analysts focus primarily on the credit-worthiness of the manufacturing companies, and they sometimes speak in more technical terms. But they often are able to spot the first problems that occur, and their reports tend to be more blunt than those from investment analysts.

More tips on finding information

Trade publications are enormously useful as sources for data about manufacturing. Every automobile reporter reads Automobile News, while airline industry reporters read Aviation Daily. Trade publications can be expensive, and editors may balk at paying for them. However, the trade publications often provide free access to their websites a few times a year. It’s an opportune time to go in and familiarize yourself with their sites. Also, some trades are willing to offer free website access to journalists, especially those that quote them. It never hurts to ask.

Finally, individual companies have their own internal data on production and sales and are often willing to share them with reporters. For years, Ford Motor Co. has provided regular research reports that are circulated among senior executives and often with the media. The reports generally serve two purposes: to cast the company in a good light, and to show that the company is aware of industry trends. But the data can be informative. Use care in quoting these statistics, and always source them to the company that provides them.

Recent stories

In 2011, there have been stories that the country is experiencing a manufacturing renaissance. President Obama has declared that the auto-industry bail-out was a success, since General Motors and Chrysler have now repaid all or part of the government loans that they were required to repay, and are posting quarterly profits.

But journalists who cover manufacturing must dig deeper than the platitudes. One reason for an uptick in manufacturing has been a growth in exports. In other words, customers overseas are demanding more U.S.-made products, overshadowing continued sluggish demand at home.

Moreover, journalists must view a rebound in context. Manufacturing employment is lagging, in part because of greater productivity. Companies do not need to hire as many workers because they have become more efficient, and many are searching for highly skilled workers, not those with a high school degree or less.

You can access more story ideas from recent posts about manufacturing on BusinessJournalism.org.

But it is clear, as Harvard Professors Gary Pisano and Willy Shih argue, that manufacturing will continue to matter to the American economy. You can read an interview in which they lay out their case.

Journalists, consultant

Some of the best covering manufacturing topics include:

  • Nick Bunkley of The New York Times Detroit bureau (@nickbunkley on Twitter)
  • David Shepardson, the Washington bureau chief for The Detroit News (@davidshepardson)
  • Benet J. Wilson, the business aviation reporter for Aviation Week (@avweekbenet)
  • Scott Hamilton, an aviation consultant, writes regularly about Airbus and Boeing (@leehamnews)

Books

  • “My Life and Work,” by Henry Ford, is considered must reading for everyone in manufacturing, from makers of cars to kitchen appliances.

About the Author

Micheline Maynard is director of the Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, and the editor of Curbing Cars: Rethinking How We Get Around, a journalist project looking at why Americans are driving less. Its eBook was published in 2014 by Forbes. She's the former Detroit Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Find her on Twitter @mickimaynard.

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